Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter
April 7, 2002
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Acts 2:42-47; Ps. 118:3-4,13-15,22-24; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31)
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.
The readings in today's liturgy are all about doubt and belief, and hope and joy. The church is still rejoicing in the glow of Easter and the increase of our numbers with all those who were newly baptized on Holy Saturday all around our earth. In fact, scholars tell us that what is called The First Epistle of Peter is actually an exhortation or homily from a baptismal ceremony; it's just been cast in the form of a letter.
We turn to the scene in the Gospel, that incredible moment of revelation in the Upper Room on Easter Sunday night. Can we ever begin to fathom what that experience must have been like for the disciples? Their world had collapsed; everything they believed and hoped for was gone; they had themselves failed in their hour of testing by fleeing in fear. What was the mix of feelings as they confronted the fact that Jesus was alive -- and there in their midst?
And remember, they realized that it was the same Jesus who had walked with them on the roads of Galilee. In one of the other Gospels he had to make the point very explicitly: "It is I, I'm not a ghost; do you have something to eat?" It's something that is reinforced in all the resurrection accounts. There are the hands and feet; the wounds; at one point he greets them by the lakeside and cooks breakfast for them. When Peter and John heal a man and the authorities ask by whose authority they did it, they answer "Jesus of Nazareth whom you put to death." Jesus of Nazareth.. They don't say, "Jesus Christ" or "Jesus the Lord", just Jesus of Nazareth. The same one.
And then we meet Thomas. Poor Thomas! He is remembered in that refrain that echoes in every language: "doubting Thomas." He's like one of those people who make one mistake at a key moment and that's the only way they are referred to ever after. A baseball player like Bill Buckner making an error on an easy play at a crucial moment in the World Series. Some of you may be old enough to remember a man the world called "Wrong-Way Corrigan." He tried to fly a small plane across the Atlantic; his plane got turned around somehow, and he wound up back where he had taken off -- and nothing he did for the rest of his life would ever be as memorable.
It's especially ironic in the case of the apostle Thomas because it's been noted that of all the people in the whole cast of characters in the New Testament Thomas is the only one who made such a direct and clear and unwavering declaration of faith: "My Lord and my God."
Actually John seems to have had a warm spot in his heart for Thomas. When it comes to the other evangelists Thomas is only a name in the list. But John brings him to center stage three times. When Jesus says he is going to risk going into the hands of his enemies in order to see his dead friend Lazarus it is Thomas who says enthusiastically, "Let's all go and die with him." And at the Last Supper when Jesus says he's going away and they are to follow, nobody has the courage to ask what it's all about, except Thomas, who blurts out "Lord, we don't know where you're going, so how can we know the way?"
Thomas is refreshing. He's an up-front guy. It's all out there, no pretense. What you see is what you get. I'll believe it when I see it. And Jesus calls him "blessed."
After all, the rest of those guys had all fled -- everyone except the women, of course. . . . (Sorry about that, guys; I know who bakes the chocolate cookies in life. . . ) Why don't we call Thomas "the great believer"?
There's a facet in this whole story which is easy to miss. "They were all together." The line is frequently misunderstood, as if they were together for fear of the Jews. Actually it says the doors were locked for fear of the Jews. They weren't together out of fear. When you think about it, the one thing that fear would make them do is to scatter. If you're afraid, you get away from making yourself a target.
No, the fact that they were together is about something else. Something had happened to them through those three years traveling with Jesus. Since Friday they had lost everything, but they had each other. Something was working in them, and it was a preparation for the gift of faith.
Faith comes within relationship, when we are gathered. When we realize we need each other as church. Faith is not a gift given to us to hug to ourselves, in isolation, it's a gift conferred on us in community.
This past week in our city we received a gift from our God. The possibility of a new beginning -- which is what Easter is about.
We need to remember what it was like exactly a year ago. We were huddled in our homes in fear. We were told to stay off the streets. We couldn't even hold our evening Holy week services because of the curfew.
This week, after hours and days and weeks of tough negotiating among key factions in our city, a settlement was reached in the profiling suit. On the final day they stayed at it for 13 hours hammering out each point. There were certainly many times when any one of them would have wanted to pull up stakes and get out of the whole process. There was anger and mistrust and doubt -- but they stayed at the table.
A settlement. It's not the Second Coming of Jesus. Right now it's only a piece of paper -- actually 60 pages of paper. We haven't seen the actions it calls for yet.
Someone may be inclined to say (like Thomas) "I'll believe it when I see it; we've been there before." That's an appropriate response; we haven't seen results yet. But the risk is that if we stay with that response we will assure that it will be only a piece of paper. Jesus doesn't come down on Thomas for his initial doubt; he tells him not to persist in his doubt. Whether the settlement remains only a piece of paper is not just a matter for Charley Luken and the police, it depends on us. Past failures are real, but they can lay hold of us and strangle us. We can be controlled by the images of past violence and betrayal of words given, just as the disciples were controlled at first by recalling Calvary and their own failure and flight.
Jesus stands in our midst in the person of a sister or brother, of an angry young man, and it is up to us to reach across the barrier of race or class or age and "Peace be to you."
the gift of faith and hope in new beginnings comes to those who gather, who support each other and call each other forth from the painful memories which could choke off the power of new life.
You and I are gathered here in this supportive community today because of the courage of countless ancestors down across the centuries who did not see but believed, and showed us in their lives and in their flesh what it means to be a people of faith and hope.
In his first letter John says we speak of "what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have looked upon and touched with our own hands." We have not seen Jesus in the flesh, but we have known him in the fidelity of our brothers and sisters. In the form of life. Remember, that is how John ends today's Gospel: "these things have been written that you may have life in his name."